The thing that really hit home with me was this list. It’s the list of the women and girls who testified in court about being sexually assaulted by US Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. 156 victims spoke. I’m pretty good with numbers, but I find that seeing the names right there in black and white hits harder than the number alone. These are people. They are more than just statistics—they’re humans who were hurt by this man when they were children.
What’s more, this isn’t even the list of Nassar’s victims. This guy worked with the national team starting over 30 years ago, with the earliest allegation going back to 1994. Other people who were molested decided not to testify.
Was the list of women who decided not to testify larger or smaller than the list of women testifying? I don’t know, but 30 years is a long time, and I can imagine a lot of women might not have wanted to think back such events. It wouldn’t surprise me if fewer than half the women he assaulted decided not to appear in court.
The thing that makes me really queasy about this case isn’t actually Nassar himself. A certain segment of the population has no scruples. To get what they want, they won’t hesitate to harm others. People like Nassar exist and will always exist. I expect the Nassars.
The bigger issue for me is the infrastructure that rose up to protect this guy. Numerous complaints surfaced over the years. The first arose in 1997 and the complaints continued for twenty years. Girls complained to their coaches. They complained to officials at Michigan State University where Nassar worked. They complained to their parents. They complained to doctors.
But it didn’t matter. The people who could have prevented this decided not to help. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they didn’t want to get involved. Maybe it seemed like too much work to accuse a national and university team doctor. Maybe they were worried about their own reputation, that they didn’t prevent the assaults or act on them sooner. Or maybe they didn’t want their university’s reputation sullied with a sexual assault scandal. Or maybe they just didn’t believe the girls, or didn’t believe them enough to actually investigate.
Maybe it was all these things.
The denial and cover up went to extreme levels. Several times, girls who accused him of molestation were forced to apologize to him. Even in 2016, when Nassar was arrested, MSU coach Kathie Klages asked her team to sign a card to let Nassar know that her team was thinking of him.
That’s the thing that makes me sick, that the whole system was corrupt, allowing this girls to be assaulted for years. Years.
The challenge of gymnastics
Yet, in a way, maybe we should expect this outcome from high-level gymnastics.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing stories about coaches who—at minimum—mentally abuse girls in order to create champions. As long as these girls win, the coaches get a free pass. They’re called unconventional or strict, or admired for encouraging the girls to work hard. And if girls disagree with the coaches’ methods, they’ll be accused of having a bad attitude.
What’s more, at the top levels, you constantly hear stories about the physical toll gymnastics takes on girls. These athletes are working long hours as a child at a physically-demanding job with a diet optimized not for health, but for gymnastics, and there are consequences to that. Girls frequently face delayed puberty, or growth issues, or even have their hair fall out.
But society considers developmental issues an acceptable cost. Medals are more important than anything, and certainly more important than the welfare of children. Gymnasts or parents who aren’t comfortable with paying those costs will likely be weeded out of the programs. Successful coaches will have already trained themselves to ignore the complaints of the kids, to look beyond any physical damage the kids might be suffering and focus on the gold.
So, maybe we should look upon high-level gymnastics as an institutionalized grooming program. Girls are encouraged to take whatever the authority throws at them without complaint. They are trained to accept a loss of control over their own bodies, ignoring any negative physical consequences. When you add to that the evidence that complaints by the girls are ignored or minimized, it starts to look like pedophile’s dream.
It makes me wonder if Nassar deliberately chose a career working with gymnasts because the system is all but deliberately designed to cater to his particularly type of perversions. And, if that’s the case, is it also possible that Larry Nassar and the 156 testifying women are only the tip of the iceberg?
The bottom line
When this news first broke, I found it surprising that there weren’t more cases of sexual assaults coming out of gymnastics, but I think I understand it now. It’s not because the assaults aren’t happening. It’s because up until this week, nobody in a position of authority cared enough to stop the sexual abuse of these children.